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'A Model For The State': Rebuild Northwest Florida Closing Doors

Rebuild Northwest Florida

Rebuild Northwest Florida is closing operations after 16 years and more than 16,000 homes serviced. 

Rebuild was established in 2004 shortly after Hurricane Ivan as residents in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties were struggling to move forward. 

“What Rebuild focused on were the unmet needs,” said Sandra Woodbery, chief operations officer of Rebuild Northwest Florida. “You know, where insurance didn’t help, and people needed repair. Mostly, the underinsured and the noninsured were helped by Rebuild.” 

The nonprofit organization helped subsidize rebuilding and hardening homes in the two-county area through federal and state grants. Homeowners just had to pay 25% of total costs. Rebuild also had resources for low-income residents who could not pay the 25% share. 

By 2008, Rebuild had finished repairing and rebuilding 2,000 homes that were damaged by Ivan. After that, the efforts were focused on getting homes ready for the next big storm. 

“The focus was primarily to strengthen our residential homes so that when we get hit by another storm, we will be a much-more-prepared community,” Woodbery said. 

Fortunately, Escambia County has not faced a major storm since Ivan. And since Rebuild's funding was disaster-dependent, services — and funding — slowed in recent years. 

“In our heyday, we had nine federal grants at one time and we were able to do 50 homes per week,” Woodbery said late last year. 

As local and state building codes have changed to add features like hurricane-resistant garage doors and windows, Woodbery said there were just a “finite” number of homes to benefit from Rebuild. The program retrofitted more than 14,000 homes in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. Some of those homes were put to the test in 2016 when a tornado hit parts of Pensacola. 

Lois Watson was one of those Rebuild clients. After years of hearing about the organization, she finally made the appointment to start the process in 2012. Through the organization, she had her garage doors replaced, roof straps installed, and hurricane shutters installed around her 1970s home. 

Credit Jennie McKeon / WUWF
Lois Watson shows the newspaper article about the 2016 tornado. The storm hit her street, but her home was largely spared thanks to the the wind-mitigation projects from Rebuild.

Watson’s street, Anchor Drive, was in the area where the 2016 tornado hit. Watson and her husband, David, and their daughter huddled in the bathroom as it passed over their house. 

“We were sitting in the bathroom and you could see the walls shaking,” she said. 

A tree limb came through the roof, but no windows were broken. The garage door was intact. Some houses in her neighborhood were badly damaged; one was a complete loss. But Watson’s home stood. 

“It made a big difference,” she said. “I feel that we had protection, I almost feel like God put a hand on us and said ‘Don’t touch them.’ So thankful we had done what we did. We couldn’t have done it without (Rebuild).”

A wind-rated garage door can sometimes be the difference between a home standing or not, said William Merrill, vice president of engineering at Rebuild. 

“With the tornados, it was clear to us that if a home had a wind-rated garage door, it generally survived,” he said. “If it did have one, generally the garage door blew in, that pressurized the roof and the roof came off.”

Installing a wind-rated garage door was around $1,200 through Rebuild, which clients only paid 25% of the cost. 

Those home-hardening measures benefit not just homeowners, but an entire community.

“There are several studies out there that say for every dollar you spend on wind mitigation, you save $4 on response, recovery, cleanup and rebuilding,” he said. 

Credit Jennie McKeon / WUWF
David Watson shows the hurricane shutters that were installed thanks to the help of Rebuild.

And in looking at the 14,000 homes retrofitted through Rebuild, that’s an even bigger impact.

“That’s 14,000 homeowners who may not be out of their house after a storm,” Merrill added. “That’s 14,000 homeowners who can go back to work, or help their neighbor. That’s fewer roofing demands. What we’ve done is really going to have regional impacts to keeping construction prices down and lowering the demand or all of those services.” 

As the organization closes up shop, it’s safe to say that it left Northwest Florida better than it found it. The program was so successful that it’s become a model for the state, said Woodbery. 

“I don’t think we could’ve been successful in any other community,” she said. “Escambia and Santa Rosa counties wrapped their arms around us and supported us. We had the ideal community and homeowners and everything just ran perfectly. I think this community can stand proud for what we accomplished.” 

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.